Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's Complicated

IT'S COMPLICATED (Nancy Meyers, 2009)

In IT'S COMPLICATED former husband and wife Jake and Jane (Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep) find that there are still some sparks between them ten years after their divorce. Jane has been wrapped up in her career and kids since the marriage ended, but as she watches their youngest child leave her home, the lack of a personal life becomes more apparent. Meanwhile, Jake went on to marry the much younger woman who had been his mistress.

While in New York for their son's graduation, Jane and Jake share an impromptu dinner that leads to the hotel room and a mess of a morning after. Jane has now become the other woman yet entertains the idea of getting back together with Jake. She knows it's probably a terrible mistake but can't help but reveling in what it is like to feel desirable again. The problematic nature of Jane and Jake's arrangement gets compounded when her architect Adam (Steve Martin) begins competing for her affections as well.

IT'S COMPLICATED is a triumph of casting. Streep, Baldwin, and Martin are having so much fun in this romantic comedy-drama that it's impossible not to get swept up in the good time they're having as well. As a bakery owner, Jane makes and sells sweet indulgences but has denied herself the same relationship-wise. Streep cuts loose in the role, and it's a pleasure to watch her dithered and delighted as the character rediscovers her attractiveness and worth.

The rascally Baldwin stirs up laughs with the confident satisfaction he exudes in seducing his ex-wife and juvenile jealousy he exhibits when another man comes across Jane's radar. Martin shows fragility, comfortable resoluteness, and good humor in how his character deals with post-divorce life and the love triangle he's unwittingly wandered into.

Writer-director Nancy Meyers keeps the complications in IT'S COMPLICATED more in the scenarios than in the emotions, which holds back what is otherwise an often funny film. It's a pleasant surprise that Jake's second wife Agness (Lake Bell) isn't portrayed as a shrew, yet Meyers evades thorny questions of the primary ethical dilemma Jane faces if she is to continue seeing Jake on such enraptured terms.

The oh-so-French set-up is managed as consequence-free wish fulfillment rather than the existential examination a more serious-minded filmmaker might give it. Meyers also infantilizes Jane's adult children to a weird degree, but such shortcomings can't undermine a good film with three actors having a blast.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nine

NINE (Rob Marshall, 2009)

Set in the free-wheeling '60s, the musical NINE follows film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he struggles to get his next movie off the ground. The famous Italian filmmaker has a title for his next opus but that's it. As he searches for a creative breakthrough, his thoughts turn to the women in his life.

NINE boasts a who's who of international actresses, with Penélope Cruz as his mistress, Nicole Kidman as his leading lady, Sophia Loren as his mother, and Marion Cotillard as his long-suffering wife Luisa.

NINE doesn't remake Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 so much as it pillages the classic film for the purposes of Broadway vamping. (NINE'S first life was as a stage production.) Director Rob Marshall and crew do a bang-up job of recreating the look of Fellini's films and stars, but for a movie that is supposed to be bursting with brio and passion, it comes off more like the soulless, uninspired product the director character within it might have scratched out to get a nagging producer off his back.

NINE deals with what is supposed to be intensely personal material, but Marshall brings no personality or verve to the tortured dreams of a stifled artist. It's a superficial affair that even lacks the decency of featuring good songs. While this is a lovely film to look at, it's a deadly situation when a musical would be best appreciated with the sound off.

As the prostitute who expedites a young Guido's carnal awakening, the Black Eyed Peas' Fergie growls and stomps through "Be Italian", the only halfway memorable tune in the songbook. In a fantasy sequence Kate Hudson's vapid reporter performs "Cinema Italiano", a song written specifically for the film. This wretched number about the virtues of Italian filmmaking is easily NINE'S low point.

Day-Lewis is always interesting to watch, but this role is thinly written and, to be generous, his singing voice leaves something to be desired. Cotillard fares best out of anyone in the talented but mostly squandered cast. In a film that is otherwise all surface, she reveals the emotional undercurrents in Luisa's stormy relationship with a creative genius and brings the only true feeling to NINE. The stunning Italian scenery, beautiful sets, and sexy ladies can't hide the fact that Marshall's film is basically all facade, and one barely propped up at that.

Grade: C-

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Road

THE ROAD (John Hillcoat, 2009)

The post-apocalyptic American landscape in THE ROAD is cold, barren, and inhospitable to life. For survivors such as the unnamed father and son played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, scavenging for canned goods is their means of maintaining strength during the long journey on foot to the warmer climate and fertile land rumored in the south.

Others have turned to cannibalism, which makes any encounter with strangers fraught with danger. The man and boy try to avoid anyone and everyone lest they cross the wrong company. They promise to kill themselves rather than be taken by these savages.

Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, THE ROAD is a haunting portrait of what it means to be a parent. Clearly the stakes are exaggerated and raised in this nightmarish scenario, but the underlying sentiment holds true. Keeping one's child safe in a world full of harm can be the most terrifying endeavor for any adult.

Mortensen plays the father with a fierce protectiveness that borders on the feral, yet the performance is riven with doubt and despair, not only at what he fears may come but as he remembers what transpired with the boy's mother (Charlize Theron). Mortensen acts not like a hero but as an ordinary man determined to guard his son even if he does not feel fully capable of the task. Surely any parent can relate.

THE ROAD is also a study of how it's easy to conduct a good, upright life during times of prosperity and happiness and less so when everything goes to hell. Yet the kicker is that it's at times of devastation when behaving with moral conviction may be most important.

THE ROAD is a bleak film visually and emotionally. The ashy gloom pervading the air on screen chokes the viewer's lungs, and the cold the characters dwell in chills one's bones. Director John Hillcoat evokes a hostile atmosphere whose stern, gray beauty makes common kindness stand out in sharp relief. What else can one wish to find when the worst is upon us?

Grade: B+

Friday, December 18, 2009

Did You Hear About the Morgans?

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? (Marc Lawrence, 2009)

Witness relocation could be the cure for a wounded marriage in the romantic comedy DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker star as the separated New York City power couple Paul and Meryl Morgan. Paul's infidelity fractured the relationship, but after months apart he is eager to patch things up. Meryl still isn't convinced the marriage is worth saving.

During a post-dinner walk the two see one of her clients murdered. The dead man was an international arms dealer bumped off by a professional killer now seeking to eliminate those who can identify him. With their lives in jeopardy, Paul and Meryl have no choice but to accept an offer to go into witness protection and be shuttled to the sleepy burg of Ray, Wyoming.

The folksy sheriff Clay Wheeler (Sam Elliott) and his deputy wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen) welcome the displaced duo into their home and function as a model couple for the Morgans. Removed from the bustling careers and personal lives they know, Paul and Meryl can now figure out if love remains between them.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? deploys the familiar and unfortunate strategy of making its New Yorkers outlandishly insular and heartland characters simple and virtuous. Such stereotyping is offered in a prostrate appeal to a perceived lumpen middle America that wants to see city slickers taken down several pegs.

In fairness, the overdone exaggerations eventually become less of a factor in the film's humor and are not condescending, unlike the 2009 Renée Zellweger film NEW IN TOWN, which bordered on the offensive in portraying common folks. Still, Hollywood's broad conceptualizing of urban and rural areas seems stuck in the 1930s.

On the plus side for DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS?, writer-director Marc Lawrence works toward reconciling the main characters rather than having them at each others' throats before the inevitable eleventh hour change of heart. Romantic comedy filmmakers have become so focused on using jokes to tear lovers apart that they lose sight of the mushy sentiment that comprises half of the genre's name.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? strives to reignite the extinguished flame between the separated husband and wife and achieves flickers of success. The mediocre material gets a boost from a hardworking Grant, who uses his trademark bumbling formality to deliver dry commentary and wring out the most laughs possible. DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? shows the strain of its screenplay shortcomings and buckles under them, but at least that's preferable to the romantic comedies full of spite.

Grade: C

Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus

INVICTUS (Clint Eastwood, 2009)

In INVICTUS a newly elected Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) turns to an unlikely group to help heal the racial divide in post-apartheid South Africa. After spending 27 years behind bars, Mandela is freed from Robben Island Prison in 1990 and continues working toward his goal of making the country a multi-racial democracy.

Four years later Mandela is the president of a nation still deeply split along racial lines. While black South Africans look forward to benefiting from having one of their own as the country's leader, the Afrikaners fear what they might face as a minority population under the rule of a black man.

At a rugby match Mandela observes that old tensions still thrive. Blacks in attendance cheer against South Africa's national team, the Springboks. To them, the Springboks represent the prejudice and oppression they were subjected to under apartheid.

With South Africa hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela sees a unique opportunity for blacks and whites to rally around the team and perhaps build national harmony. Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is tasked with the duty of making the team an inspiration for all South Africans.

Sports can breed deep and ugly rivalries, but they also have a way of unifying people from uncommon backgrounds and interests, whether it's the players or those cheering them on. This is especially true in international competitions, even if the sports themselves may not be ones that viewers are concerned with except every four years.

In INVICTUS director Clint Eastwood does a sharp job of showing Mandela's political genius in utilizing a team that symbolized the old white establishment--and which had only one black player--to demonstrate how South Africa's present and future could unify former opponents.

It was a risky maneuver and not one encouraged by his advisers, but just as Mandela understood that he needed to integrate his personal security team behind a common purpose, he also knew that the nation needed something to strive for collectively.

Carrying over the wise, fatherly influence he brings to other roles, Freeman applies a firm but calming presence to his portrayal of Mandela. It's a persuasive performance that leads one to see how this man could overcome the enormous odds of bridging the gap in South Africa's racial relations.

While INVICTUS fits into the biographical and inspirational sports movie traditions, Eastwood resists sanctifying Mandela or giving in to unabashed emotionalism on the pitch. The director references Mandela's shortcomings as a man bearing a heavy weight and allows the actions to say more than speeches.

Although INVICTUS is not strictly a Mandela biopic, this particular accomplishment of his cuts to the essence of who the South African is and what he fought for. INVICTUS could do a better job of explaining the basic rules to rugby neophytes, especially with so much of the final act devoted to the big match, but that's a minor quibble when the gist of gameplay can be picked up by observing.

INVICTUS draws its title from the name of a William Ernest Henley poem that inspired Mandela during his incarceration. Likewise, the film serves as a reminder that no matter how dire the circumstances, truly remarkable change is possible.

Grade: B

(Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Antichrist

ANTICHRIST (Lars von Trier, 2009)

In ANTICHRIST the couple played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, simply dubbed He and She in the credits, mourn the accidental death of their son. He processes and deals with his grief, but her method of coping with the tragedy produces emotional paralysis and a path toward madness.

As a therapist, he has his own ideas about what's best for his wife and chooses to oversee her recovery rather than let her lay medicated in the hospital. He uncovers that the seeds of her depression and fear come from nature, so off they go to a remote cabin in the woods in a place they refer to as Eden in an attempt to cure her.

There's a lot to unpack from ANTICHRIST, a head-spinning achievement and nightmarish hallucination of a film. Purely as a visual and visceral experience, puckish writer-diretor Lars von Trier produces an enormously powerful phantasmagoria that deals with and reproduces the effects of fear and depression.

On a technical level ANTICHRIST is superb at casting an unsettling dream-like atmosphere. The camera lens slowly but gradually distorts the lush yet hostile landscape of the woods and garden from which she once ran and to which they return. Falling acorns clatter on the roof of the cabin as though hell itself is raining down. Even as a viewer, nowhere and nothing feels safe in this movie. ANTICHRIST is, in a way, the ultimate horror film, one in which the natural world offers evil instead of salvation.

A major point for discussion is the rampant misogyny that von Trier offers up seriously, although who's to say whether the presentation is to be read as authorial agreement. After all, von Trier is a provocateur of the highest order. He goes so far as to replace the title's last letter with the T-like symbol of Venus. Coupled with Gainsbourg's fierce, uncompromising performance, the link of the female with evil is established, but in my mind von Trier is using gender archetypes rather than saying something about womankind.

Biblical allusions to Adam and Eve are mostly implicit in ANTICHRIST, but therein lies what may be the key to the film. Nature or mother nature (in female terms) or human nature (in general) is sinful. Eden is no longer a hospitable place. The title conjures images of a devilish figure in opposition to God, but for von Trier the Antichrist of the film's name is human frailty.

At least on the first time around ANTICHRIST seems beyond an evaluation. Whatever the grade, it's a film that demands to be seen, at least by those select viewers who can handle the extreme nature of the material.

Grade: B-

Friday, December 04, 2009

Armored

ARMORED (Nimród Antal, 2009)

Six armored truck guards scheme to steal $42 million dollars from the very vehicles they're protecting in ARMORED. Ty (Columbus Short) is the newest hire at the security company. The former Marine badly needs the job as he has returned home to caring for his truant younger brother and trying to keep the bank from taking the house he inherited.

Ty's co-worker and family friend Mike (Matt Damon) promises to look out for him. The night before the planned heist Mike clues Ty in to what he and the other armored guards have cooking for their next work day. Initially Ty refuses to take part, but his financial needs win out over his moral objections. When the heist goes awry, Ty is forced to outwit the other guards to survive.

ARMORED has the components of a tight little genre movie, something director Nimrod Antal turned out two years ago with the motel thriller VACANCY. A significant amount of ARMORED takes place in a single, relatively confined location. The cast features seasoned pros, with Laurence Fishburne and Jean Reno as guards and Fred Ward as the tough boss who wouldn't be happy to know what some of his employees are up to. A ticking clock looms over the proceedings, as the trucks are due back at headquarters in less than an hour. The hero must outsmart his antagonists while locked in an armored truck.

The screenplay and Antal's direction are executed with workmanlike efficiency. With all of these things in place, ARMORED should crackle with nervous energy; however, the bland characters don't get much of interest to do and are virtually interchangeable as they take whacks at the pin they're trying to remove from an armored truck's door hinge. Dillon gets a couple chances to menace and preen as the villain, but the role remains something of a missed opportunity. Since ARMORED focuses on monotonous work under pressure, the dialogue needs some sizzle but mostly fizzles.

Grade: C

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Old Dogs

OLD DOGS (Walt Becker, 2009)

In OLD DOGS longtime best friends and sports marketing partners Charlie (John Travolta) and Dan (Robin Williams) end up with unfamiliar seven-year-old twins in their temporary custody. Zach and Emily (Conner Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta) are the product of Charlie's persuasive plan of getting Dan to spend a single night out of town indulging in heavy drinking and other divorce-forgetting behavior. Seven years later, when Dan tries to rekindle something with his old one night stand (Kelly Preston), he learns that he's a dad.

Through an incredibly convoluted series of events, including the kids' mother having to do a short stint in prison and their hand model intended caretaker (Rita Wilson) being incapacitated, Dan offers to watch them while his firm deals with winning its biggest potential contract ever. Surely nothing can go wrong when two hopelessly unqualified guys try to babysit two unknown children while attempting to broker a deal with Japanese businessmen, right?

The old dogs of the title may refer to the not quite senior citizen leads, but it's a more apt description of the shopworn and laughless jokes occupying this woofer of a comedy. The threadbare screenplay is stitched together from the worst and most clichéd ideas to emerge from--and should be discarded during--a brainstorming session.

The immediacy with which the telegraphed punchline for each joke and scene arrives is enough to make Samuel Morse envious. The embarrassingly broad performances in OLD DOGS contain more ham than a grocery's meat department at Easter.

It's one thing to make an attempt and not succeed, but OLD DOGS doesn't muster genuine enthusiasm to give its best shot. Rather, director Walt Becker and the cast take the musty material and lack of a through line and play it to the rafters in the hope that no one will notice how vacant the film truly is.

OLD DOGS unspools like MRS. DOUBTFIRE in reverse. Extraordinary means are used to put the kids in close proximity to Williams' character. He is then supposed to bond with the lovable tykes, but the clanging and incomplete mechanical structure can't even support this feeble story. OLD DOGS needed to be put down before a frame was shot, especially when letting it linger on and become this product is thoroughly humiliating for everyone involved.

Grade: D-

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Education

AN EDUCATION (Lone Scherfig, 2009)

AN EDUCATION'S sixteen year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a very clever girl and she knows it. Jenny peppers her conversations with French phrases and imagines what awaits her beyond the suburban London home of her working class parents in 1961.

One rainy afternoon after orchestra practice Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a friendly man driving a maroon sports car. He offers to give her cello a ride home so as to protect the instrument from the elements. Easily charmed and flattered by this handsome older fellow, Jenny eventually hops in the car beside him and quickly bonds with the stranger.

Despite their age difference, David persuades Jenny's parents that spending time with her, such as taking her to a concert in the West End or to Oxford overnight, is all about broadening her knowledge and making important connections.

AN EDUCATION showcases several fine performances in this story about the dangers of youthful cleverness. Jenny isn't as worldly as she feels she is, and Mulligan, in her first major role, does keen and sensitive acting to peel back the effects of the schooling the character gets in prizing her own intelligence to a fault.

Jenny may think too highly of herself, but what teenager, especially a smart and studious one, doesn't think she has everything figured out? The naive confidence with which Mulligan plays the part is what makes Jenny's awakening to reality so heartbreaking and what makes her so attractive to David.

Sarsgaard excels as a smooth operator whose words and behavior around Jenny and her family misrepresent his true intentions. One's sixth sense suggests there is something creepy about him, yet he appears perfectly respectable.

While the title of AN EDUCATION refers to the instruction Jenny receives, it applies just as well to the lesson given to her father Jack (Alfred Molina). While suspicious, Jack permits himself to be persuaded by the elegantly enticing David because he believes the stranger can give his daughter social and economic advantages. Molina exudes love for his on-screen daughter and misguidedly acts in what he thinks are her best interests.

In the hands of director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby, Lynn Barber's memoir is treated with a youthful innocence rather than an adult's experience and perhaps jadedness. It's a critical distinction because taking an older view of this story would taint how it is observed and reconciled. AN EDUCATION has sort of an abrupt climax to resolve the question at its center, but overall the cast and crew are graceful in telling this coming-of-age story.

Grade: B+

Friday, November 20, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE (Lee Daniels, 2009)

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE features newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as sixteen year-old Claireece "Precious" Jones. Precious is obese, illiterate, and still in junior high school. The Harlem teen is also the single mother of a mongoloid daughter cared for by her grandmother and carrying another child. Both pregnancies are the result of being raped by her father.

As if those aren't enough hardships, Precious' welfare-scamming mother Mary (Mo'Nique) abuses her. Precious catches a break when her expulsion from the public school leads her to an alternative school, where she the teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) takes an interest in her. Also concerned with Precious' toxic home life is a deglamorized Mariah Carey as social worker Mrs. Weiss.

Although PRECIOUS is not as mawkish or dreary as the plot description makes it sound, director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher have a bad habit of smacking the protagonist and, by extension, the audience upside the head with more punishment than is necessary. The film is at odds to tell an inspiring story and confirm the hopelessness of the situation.

Precious' turbulent life presents ample problems for her to overcome, yet the film keeps finding new ways to extract pain from her circumstances. PRECIOUS isn't poverty tourism, but in the effort to evoke gritty realism, the filmmakers overdo it.

PRECIOUS also suffers from the shifts between the main character's internal monologue and the film's desire to initiate a larger conversation about girls like her and the portrayed community. This inconsistent character study succeeds when conveying Precious' self-image, how she views her dire conditions, and what she dreams of. Sidibe's naturalistic performance and the intermittent fantasy sequences reveal the humanity in the sort of character and person who is usually overlooked, if not purposefully ignored, but attempts to extrapolate this individual experience to a general group lack support.

Daniels employs a throw everything at the wall to see what sticks directorial style that makes PRECIOUS compelling viewing, but predictably, his shotgun approach lacks focus. Most critically, PRECIOUS veers off track at the end when Mo'Nique gets a showcase scene with Precious and the social worker. The scene is emotionally loaded, but upon inspection it makes no dramatic sense and doesn't end with the sort of uplift it pretends to have.

PRECIOUS can be funny and deeply felt. Unfortunately, like those people surrounding the character, it loses sight of the character.

Grade: C

Friday, November 13, 2009

2012

2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009)

With Earth on the eve of destruction in 2012, we can't stop the impending apocalypse; we can only hope to contain it. Conspiracy theorists, such as Woody Harrelson as the film's resident nutjob, believe that the Mayan calendar foretells the end of the world on December 21, 2012. Scientists may not put any stock in the predictive power of an ancient civilization, but they notice that the planet is heating from the inside at an alarming rate, which may cause the crust to crack.

Of course, the powers that be don't bother informing the public about the forthcoming catastrophe. Rather, they plan for how to save their own skins and ensure the future of humanity. Failed author turned limousine driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) happens to be in the right place at the right time when hell on earth arrives. Armed with knowledge of a long shot survival option, Jackson scrambles to save his former wife Kate (Amanda Peet), kids, and their stepdad.

As INDEPENDENCE DAY and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW demonstrated, 2012 director Roland Emmerich was already proficient at destroying the world's landmarks and land masses for vicarious thrills. In wiping out most of Earth's population in 2012 he takes his filmmaking as ant colony stomping approach to a new level. Fortunately the faceless nature of the mass casualties keeps this from being the most depressing movie ever.


Alternately serious and goofy, 2012 is intended to be a breathless action picture with some sobering moments and a hoot of a comedy. Emmerich would be better off losing the pretense of respectability and embracing the B-movie showmanship that is clearly his strength. Emmerich and 2012 don't do heartfelt emotion and character so well.

The film is padded with a few little stories and one primary tale of the fight for survival, but these lumbering scenes of dialogue and plot generate about as much feeling as reading the names on a company's emergency phone tree. 2012 perks up when catastrophe befalls the planet, but after awhile the repetition of CGI destruction becomes numbing.

Harrelson's pickle munching, paranoid radio talk show host brings some over-the-top humor that this preposterous movie desperately needs, but in terms of tone 2012 follows the lead of its solemn survivors more often than not. Then again, maybe Emmerich is slier than he's given credit for. Punctuating 2012 is the discovery that enduring the possible end of the world cures a little girl's bed-wetting.

Grade: D+

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Astro Boy

ASTRO BOY (David Bowers, 2009)

A classic Japanese manga and anime character gets an American polish in the new computer-animated film ASTRO BOY. The film's futuristic setting is Metro City, an island in the sky removed from the environmentally-ravaged Earth below them. This home in the clouds is where the brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) creates robots that take care of practically every human need.

When Dr. Tenma's son Toby is accidentally killed during a military experiment at the Ministry of Science, the grieving father builds a robot clone of his boy. Initially the new Toby delights Dr. Tenma, but as it becomes clear that he hasn't truly duplicated his son, the scientist loses affection for him. Chased from Metro City by General Stone's warriors, Toby finds a new home on Earth and is given the name Astro (Freddie Highmore).

Neither silly enough to be fun nor deep enough to be meaningful, ASTRO BOY comes off like a film as confused about its nature as its main character. The sleek, brightly colored movie can be zippy fun when in comic book mode. The action sequences are nicely rendered, as is the animation.

Astro Boy's harried robot servant, voiced by Eugene Levy, and a talking squeegee and squirt bottle provide some sorely needed humor. This space age riff on PINOCCHIO can be glum and heavy handed as it explores such topics as parental grief, political power grabs, and environmental destruction.

ASTRO BOY'S shortcomings may be the result of trying to do too much. The political subtext regarding a power-mad military leader is particularly clunky and doesn't mesh with the more resonant family themes. In terms of plot and character the film is unfocused and unsatisfying. ASTRO BOY may have many of the same parts as the source material, but as Dr. Tenma learns, trying to replicate something doesn't mean you end up with the same original.

Grade: C

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN (F. Gary Gray, 2009)

In LAW ABIDING CITIZEN Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) watches helplessly as two intruders murder his wife and daughter. Clyde feels similarly powerless when city prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cuts a deal with one of the killers. It's just business as usual in the district attorney's office, but the apparent injustice and the inequity--one man receives the death penalty, the other gets a shortened sentence--enrages Clyde.

Ten years later he avenges his family by tampering with the execution to make it more painful and abducting, torturing, and killing the criminal who cut a plea. Clyde's revenge doesn't stop when he's arrested and imprisoned. Even from behind bars he takes out his anger on everyone involved with the case and threatens to bring down the entire justice system.

The diverting garbage that is LAW ABIDING CITIZEN would be more deplorable if it were possible to take this wholly implausible film seriously. Butler's Joker-like character terrorizes and kills those in the judicial and legal establishment because of his dissatisfaction with the system.

Ordinarily he would be the villain, but LAW ABIDING CITIZEN'S sympathies are clearly with him. Forget due process. Forget civil rights. Forget the underpinnings of society. This is an angry film in which one man's perception of injustice rationalizes engaging in the cold-blooded murder of anyone peripherally involved with the case and promoting lawlessness as an appropriate response.

To feed the lust for blood and anarchy director F. Gary Gray stacks the deck in the first scene. He shows Clyde's family being killed and suggests the rape of the wife and possibly the daughter. Of course this puts the audience in Clyde's corner, but the leap from wanting just punishment to advocating the deaths of the defense, prosecution, and other government employees goes beyond the pale.

As inflammatory as the film sounds, LAW ABIDING CITIZEN is too preposterous to be dangerous. Clyde's apparent ability to be anywhere at any time while locked up defies logic, as does the film's inevitable explanation.

Grade: C-

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (Spike Jonze, 2009)

Based on Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE follows the adventures of a little boy in a wolf suit who runs away from home. Max (Max Records) is a creative, and energetic kid, but his rambunctiousness sometimes gets him into trouble. After lashing out at his mom (Catherine Keener), Max sprints out of the house to avoid a scolding. He finds a boat that takes him to an island inhabited by large creatures who make him their king.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE imaginatively evokes the childhood fears and wonders experienced when trying to make sense of the world. In a few brief brush strokes writer-director Spike Jonze and co-write Dave Eggers elegantly convey Max's confusion about his parents' divorce, his mom's new relationship, the emotional distance from his father, and gradual separation from his sister as she prefers to spend more time with friends her age.

These changes disorient Max and make him angry, but he's not a bad kid. Jonze wrote for and produced the JACKASS TV shows and films, and he envisions Max as a similarly rough and tumble boy who learns the pleasure and pain that comes in horseplay and in life.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE can be thin plot-wise, but the virtuosic visual component and amazing practical and CGI effects compensate for these storytelling shortcomings. There are shots in the film where I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Max's voyage on an ocean with towering waves and the stunning views of the island landscape and the wild things' giant nest under construction are indelible images.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a sad, baffling, and joyous film, but such is the life of a child.

Grade: B

(Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Invention of Lying

THE INVENTION OF LYING (Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2009)

In the alternative world presented in THE INVENTION OF LYING everyone tells the truth to a fault. While honesty all the time might sound ideal, it can produce brutal results. For screenwriter Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais), it means being subjected to insults and uncomfortable interactions.

After losing his job and facing eviction, Mark asks a bank teller for more money than is in his account and receives it. Like the rest of society, the banker has no mechanism for recognizing dishonesty. Mark uses his newly discovered power to lie and improve his life, but the consequences of his lying eventually catch up with him in ways he couldn't have anticipated.

Gervais is not one to let pride get in the way of a good joke at his expense, and as star, co-writer, and co-director of THE INVENTION OF LYING, he gleefully sends the cruelest barbs his way. The film gets off to a rollicking start with everyone spouting their uncensored opinions.

Clearly all truth all the time has its down sides despite what our parents taught us about lying. Similarly, the film amuses in how unquestioning people are in accepting Gervais' untruths and the problems this creates. Falsehoods can be damaging, but telling lies can be the right or civil thing to do and can spur creativity. After all, what is fiction, which is something that doesn't exist in the film's art-less universe?

Gervais is an avowed atheist, so he uses THE INVENTION OF LYING'S concept to explore what he views as the deleterious effects of religion. The satire is nowhere near as biting and isn't as dismissive as would be expected from a comedian who specializes in humor of discomfort. Gervais and co-writer/director Matthew Robinson also struggle to balance the headier notions floating about in THE INVENTION OF LYING. The philosophical musings can drag down the lighter elements and lend an uneven tone to the film.

Gervias is funny throughout and well-matched with Jennifer Garner, who delivers a guileless performance marked by chipper, unyielding logic as Mark's love interest Anna. Gervais may put no stock in religious belief, but via Garner's character he presents an implicit riposte to leaving everything merely to reason.

Gervais has helped craft a funny but inconsistent film, yet I'd be lying if I didn't mention that I appreciate the ambition and humor put into what could have been a one-note premise.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 09, 2009

Paranormal Activity

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (Oren Peli, 2007)

Like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the low budget chiller PARANORMAL ACTIVITY assembles raw footage found in the aftermath of an encounter with something beyond our understanding of the natural world. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat play a couple who observe weird occurrences and sounds in their home and are becoming more spooked by them. In keeping with the intent of passing this off as real, the actor's first names share their first names with the characters.

Katie has experienced these disturbances since childhood and feels they are becoming more persistent. In the hope of finding an explanation, Micah purchases video equipment to record nearly everything that happens when they are awake and asleep. What the tapes reveal does not comfort them.

The makers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY understand that the most frightening things are what we imagine but can't see. Whether it's the creaks and cracks of a home settling at the end of the day or the hiss of air that sounds like vague voices coming from the vents, things that go bump in the night can scare even the most rational person, especially one who's half-asleep.

Writer-director Oren Peli uses PARANORMAL ACTIVITY'S limitations of a single location and low budget to his supreme advantage. The camera never leaves the property on which the couple's home sits, so no relief is ever provided. The mental wear and tear of living in a stressful place and in an increasingly tense relationship is played beautifully by the actors and is thus transferred to the viewers.

Peli stokes audience suggestibility and encourages scanning the video noise for the tiniest sign of something supernatural at play. With agonizing anticipation of something bad happening, he teases for long stretches and then delivers fleeting but startling glimpses or sounds of something untoward going on.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY isn't an actor's film per se, but it wouldn't be as eerily effective without Featherston and Sloat's believable, lived in performances. Since we observe everything through their eyes, the film becomes scarier the more their relationship frays.

Grade: B+

Friday, October 02, 2009

Whip It

WHIP IT (Drew Barrymore, 2009)

In WHIP IT the unconventional Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) seeks an escape from her podunk hometown of Bodeen, Texas and the beauty pageants her mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) enthusiastically signs her up for.

Bliss finds the answer at the roller derby in Austin. The fast, hard-hitting sport featuring strong, uncompromising women is a refreshing alternative to the images she knows. On the sly Bliss tries out for and wins a spot on the team and becomes a star known as Babe Ruthless. The secrets she keeps from her family and teammates can't remain hidden forever, though.

WHIP IT bears the personality that director Drew Barrymore has cultivated as an actress. The feminist coming of age sports dramedy has a sweet and sunny disposition bolstered by a proud independent streak. WHIP IT can lapse into sitcom mode from time to time, but other than Jimmy Fallon's grating work as a roller derby emcee, Barrymore is adept at getting good performances even when the material takes exaggerated routes.

Page's well-rounded turn as Bliss has grit, sass, and vulnerability, all of which are essential to the character striking out on her own path despite what her parents expect. Yet Barrymore doesn't let Bliss off the hook when she makes bad decisions.

Daniel Stern plays Bliss' father as a sensible man who knows to let his wife and child sort out their differences while also taking pride in his daughter's self-discovery. The moments in which he hunts and pecks at a keyboard to see Bliss on the roller derby website and later is able to display his joy to the neighbors are nice, small character flourishes. Harden initially comes off as the stereotypical uptight mother, but just like a child discovering that mom is more clued in to reality than anticipated, her character deepens.

The first-time director shows a nice touch for depicting small town life as well as parsing family dynamics. The Cavendar home looks and feels like a rural or suburban residence, and the relationships seem natural too. If Barrymore wishes to carve out a non-acting path for herself, WHIP IT certainly demonstrates that she has solid instincts.

Grade: B-

Friday, September 25, 2009

Surrogates

SURROGATES (Jonathan Mostow, 2009)

In the futuristic world of SURROGATES, most people stay at home and mentally control human-looking androids that they send out to work and play. Since it's rare for people to leave their private spheres, crime has plummeted.

If a surrogate is damaged in any way, the operator remains unharmed. Or at least that's always been the case until cop Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) discovers that two operators died when their surrogates were attacked and terminated. The possibility that users can be harmed through their surrogates threatens to upend civilization's current way of functioning.

SURROGATES establishes an intriguing premise for exploring a world in which virtual life trumps physical reality, but the thematic potential is squandered in favor of a by-the-numbers police procedural. Who's responsible for murdering people through their surrogates is much less interesting than thinking about technological innovations and the foreseen and unexpected social and ethical implications they can have on society.

In SURROGATES who one can be depends on the mechanical avatar chosen to represent oneself. But what are the costs of putting forth a false or idealized image and withdrawing from an existence outside one's home? SURROGATES is a movie that has a lot on its mind but chooses the least compelling aspect to focus on.

I've read nothing to suggest that the film was tampered with in the editing room, but SURROGATES has the marks of a movie that's been oversimplified due to a studio's lack of confidence in its complexity. Most noticeably, the surrogate resistance movement gets short shrift when it would seem to be critical to digging into the film's themes.

The sleek visual texture and rich thematic potential make director Jonathan Mostow's inability to corral the ideas all the more disappointing. Technology often moves faster than society can deal with the moral quandaries it creates. SURROGATES poses some provocative questions. If only it had debated them.

Grade: C

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jennifer's Body

JENNIFER'S BODY (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

In JENNIFER'S BODY Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried are unlikely best friends who find themselves at odds when one of them becomes possessed by a demon. Carrying the unflattering nickname Needy, Seyfried's character is a regular teenager who has always played second fiddle to Fox's Jennifer, the hottest girl in high school.

Jennifer knows how desirable and popular she is and flaunts the power her looks give her. The wounds Jennifer inflicts are purely emotional until a demon enters her body and takes control.

Rather than an out-and-out horror film, JENNIFER'S BODY is a supernatural high school dark comedy with a feminist bent courtesy of director Karyn Kusama and JUNO screenwriter Diablo Cody. In blending so many genres it's inevitable that JENNIFER'S BODY is somewhat confused about its identity and can't withstand the strain of a disjointed plot. An inciting tragedy and Jennifer and Needy's connection are among the points that lack sufficient explanation for what follows in the film.

Kusama and Cody aim to examine the power and fear of female sexuality, particularly among adolescents, but the muddled second half can't fulfill their ambitions. Seyfried, the film's true lead, turns in a solid and sensitive performance while Fox fails to locate the nuance in her character. She's not entirely to blame. The script doesn't clarify her motivation for a decision in a key scene and then leaves the audience in the dark about what makes her behave so monstrously.

Cody has received some backlash for her signature slang-heavy dialogue. Such criticism has merit, mainly because of the showy but empty nature of her words, but her sharp conversations occasionally draw blood and laughs, such as when she takes on disparate subjects as the tween flick AQUAMARINE and 9/11 fetishization.

Like a girl transforming into a woman during adolescence, JENNIFER'S BODY aspires to be smart, hip, sexy, and scary. Kusama and Cody don't fully succeed in making JENNIFER'S BODY as clever as intended, but in deploying Fox's physical allure as a weapon in the film and to prospective viewers of it, they unleash some potent ideas and subvert the genre.

Grade: C

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Informant!

THE INFORMANT! (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)

In the fact-based comedy THE INFORMANT! Matt Damon stars as a corporate executive turned whistleblower in a major multi-national price-fixing case in the early 1990s. Damon is Mark Whitacre, an up-and-coming divisional president at agri-business giant Archer Daniels Midland.

Mark's first contact with the FBI comes when he tips off his superiors that a Japanese competitor claims to know of a mole at ADM and wants ten million dollars to reveal who it is. He worries that the bureau's tapping of his business phone line at home will reveal what else he's involved in, so Mark confesses that his employer has him conspiring with other corporations to set the global market on lysine.

Mark agrees to cooperate with the FBI and make tapes documenting the illegal business practices, but for all of his help, the confident and bumbling informant complicates the case far beyond anyone's expectations.

Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns could have adapted Kurt Eichenwald's book as a thriller. Instead THE INFORMANT! treats the true story as a comedy set to a jaunty Marvin Hamlisch score. The music and light tone serve as counterpoint to the serious business of corporate criminality and the drudgery of collecting and understanding the complex evidence needed for prosecution.

Soderbergh and Burns deftly present the puzzling information in a clear and highly entertaining manner, but for all of their hard, workmanlike efforts, the film is Damon's through and through. At first Damon's hilarious performance appears to be little more than playing the clueless schlub who narrates his exploits with an internal, analytical yammering, which is funny enough in its own right. Damon's layered work gradually transforms this unlikely hero into the type of person Whitacre's FBI handlers couldn't have anticipated encountering.

Whitacre was the highest ranking executive informant who ever cooperated with the bureau. The story about why he chose to help is fascinating, perplexing, and, in a certain light, outrageously funny.

Grade: A-

(Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sorority Row

SORORITY ROW (Stewart Hendler, 2009)

In SORORITY ROW five sisters of Theta Pi pledge to keep quiet about the accidental, prank-related murder of one of their friends. Cassidy (Briana Evigan) is not in favor of covering up the death, but she doesn't feel she has a choice when the others threaten to pin the blame on her if she won't keep their terrible secret. Eight months later at graduation a killer with a lethally customized tire iron goes about avenging the dead girl the sorority sisters dumped in a mine shaft.

About halfway through, SORORITY ROW seems to abandon being a horror movie and gives itself over to comedy. Perhaps that is the best course of action as this remake of a 1983 slasher film is certainly more successful producing laughs than scares. Leah Pipes is very funny as the imperious and emotionally frigid leader of these morally repellent sorority girls. If she wants a future playing wicked queen bees, this performance shows she's cut out for it.

Rather than its partial tongue-in-cheek approach, SORORITY ROW would benefit from full commitment to dark humor, a la the 1988 Winona Ryder film HEATHERS. The movie is clearly sympathetic to the killer's blistering assessment of Greek life. Even its conflicted protagonist Cassidy is far from blameless in hushing up her friend's murder.

SORORITY ROW drops hints of a potentially withering commentary on group-think, but ultimately it's as conformist as its characters. The film caves into the demands for brain-dead horror cliches, gratuitous nudity, and run-of-the-mill suspense captured in needlessly shaky camera work. SORORITY ROW can laugh at the fact that it falls in line with genre conventions, but it doesn't excuse how easily it adopts them. After all, isn't going along with a plan despite knowing better the same thing its main character is guilty of?

Grade: C-

Sunday, September 06, 2009

All About Steve

ALL ABOUT STEVE (Phil Traill, 2009)

In ALL ABOUT STEVE crossword puzzle creator Mary Horowitz (Sandra Bullock) grudgingly accepts a parentally-arranged blind date with cable news videographer Steve (Bradley Cooper). Upon seeing her handsome date Mary becomes hot to trot, but her intensity and incessant chatter lead Steve to cut short their time together. His job provides the convenient excuse of a breaking news assignment out of town. Steve politely but insincerely says that he wishes Mary could accompany him.

Instantly obsessed with Steve, Mary misreads the situation and decides that fate is telling her to follow him around the country. The situation worsens when Steve's co-worker, pompous news reporter Hartman Hughes (Thomas Haden Church), encourages Mary's seemingly delusional actions.

ALL ABOUT STEVE is constructed as a romantic comedy, but Mary's tireless, stalker-like behavior suggests that this ought to be a horror film. There's that and the matter of ALL ABOUT STEVE being dreadfully unfunny. Hartman feeds her delusions, but Mary's inability to decode social cues and her ceaseless cheer are intended as cute quirks, as though she's an innocent venturing into the world for the first time.

Bullock plays Mary as a sweet savant with no concept of how demented she is. Twinkly tics and all, Bullock's performance is an irritating one, to say the least. It's as if Poppy, the positive thinking main character of HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, wandered into this movie and lost all self-awareness.

Propagating ALL ABOUT STEVE'S spectacular misconception is its drumbeat of up with the unusual, down with the press. There's a touch of Billy Wilder's ACE IN THE HOLE to ALL ABOUT STEVE'S media criticism, although if that parallel was intended, director Phil Traill and screenwriter Kim Barker missed that the gathering gawkers and carnival building up around a rescue site were not positive developments.

ALL ABOUT STEVE is an atypical romantic comedy, but different for different's sake doesn't automatically equate to good.

Grade: D

Friday, September 04, 2009

Extract

EXTRACT (Mike Judge, 2009)

In the comedy EXTRACT Joel (Jason Bateman) might appear to have everything he could want, but he's struggling to keep it together. He's founder and owner of Reynold's Extract, which is doing good business and has a large corporation inquiring about a buyout. Joel is also married to a woman he loves and has a nice home and car.

Unfortunately for Joel an employee injury on the factory floor could be financially devastating to the company and jeopardize the potential sale. Factor in Joel's nonexistent sex life and temptation in the form of Mila Kunis' flirtatious temporary worker Cindy, and it's a recipe for constant aggravation.

EXTRACT writer-director Mike Judge, whose credits include OFFICE SPACE and the animated series KING OF THE HILL, may be the filmmaker who best understands today's working middle class. Although EXTRACT is far from his greatest accomplishment, primarily due to the film's underwritten feel, he remains a sharp and humorous observer of the small, common nuisances that slowly and quietly crush spirits.

With EXTRACT Judge collects and loosely connects amusing vignettes from middle class life, be it the overly friendly neighbor whose nose is always in one's business or the pettiness of one's employees when they detect the slightest hint of favoritism. The plot is pretty much a mess, but Judge strings together plenty of minor laughs to disregard the film's structural chaos.

Bateman is a dependable lead in a role not far removed from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT'S put-upon Michael Bluth, and he has good chemistry with a badly bearded Ben Affleck as Joel's bartending best friend Dean.

The film gets stolen, though, by Dustin Milligan as a dim-witted gigolo that Dean convinces Joel to hire to test his wife's fidelity and possibly give him an out for hooking up with the foxy temp. Milligan plays stupid convincingly, but he doesn't overdo it. You can practically see and hear the gears working in his head as he tries to process the instructions he'll inevitably fail to follow properly.

EXTRACT works better as a bunch of miniature observations than as a singular piece, but viewed within the context of Judge's body of work, it's a funny and worthy addition to his suburban comedies.

Grade: B-

Saturday, August 22, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA (Stephen Sommers, 2009)

In G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA, the titular Joe isn't a real American hero but an international force of special operatives fighting to keep the world safe. Arms manufacturer James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) has created warheads containing nano-mites that gobble metal. He sells four of the weapons to NATO but intends to have The Baroness (Sienna Miller) steal them back.

American soldiers Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are on the delivery mission when the G.I. Joe team comes to their aid. Once the missiles are safe, Duke and Ripcord are free to go, but they decide to stick around, earn spots as Joes, and work to bring down McCullen.

G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA is like a term paper that fulfills the word count requirement and drops in key phrases to demonstrate some familiarity with the material but is largely filler. Director Stephen Sommers delivers plenty of effects-heavy action sequences, some which work and some that don't, and has a zippy way of coloring in multiple character backstories without bogging the film down as an origin tale. There are worse summer movies based on toy franchises that one could see.

But with scene after scene of whiz-bang combat, G.I. JOE feels insubstantial and lacking in personality. Since it plays more like an introduction to a potential series of films than a self-contained piece, nothing seems to be at stake. With an overpopulated cast of characters, each gets a single defining trait and showcase moment. That's fine for action figures or an after school cartoon, but the film feels unmoored without a dynamic hero leading the way. G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA is paced well and entertaining in stretches, but it also produces a lot of wheel-spinning until the signature villains finally emerge.

Grade: C

Friday, August 21, 2009

Avatar Day

WOW! THE FUTURE OF THE CINEMA HAS BEEN AND FOREVER WILL BE FUNDAMENTALLY TRANSFORMED!

OK, maybe not.

I'm not sure why I decided to put in a ticket reservation for tonight's showing of a preview reel from James Cameron's AVATAR. The offer arrived in my inbox Monday morning, and without thinking about it I went to the site to register.

But why? I don't make it a point to track down every tidbit of information about upcoming films prior to seeing them--I'd prefer to be, you know, surprised--so going to a theater to watch about fifteen minutes from a movie that won't be released until four months from now really doesn't make any sense. I confess, though, that hearing all of the hype piqued my curiosity enough to want to see what is supposedly such a big deal.

Let's get the obvious out of the way upfront. There's no way of telling how well the six scenes and brief montage shown for Avatar Day actually work within the context of the entire film. Seeing the footage in IMAX 3D provides a better gauge of the visuals than a trailer streamed online, but at this point they're just disjointed scenes of pretty pictures.

In the filmed introduction Cameron informed viewers that all of the footage was from the film's first half and contains no spoilers. I have a feeling I know what the film is about, more or less, but I'll keep my trap shut because there's no point in hypothesizing now.

The Avatar Day scenes contain enough exposition to clarify a general storyline, but the most time is dedicated to effects-heavy sequences, which is what those in attendance likely wanted to see most urgently. The avatars' confrontation with some alien animals and the hero's attempt to do something akin to bronco breaking of a dragon-like creature look impressive, but what else is there to say about them?

Correct or not, my initial impression is that AVATAR appears to be a mostly animated film about the long and slender blue cats which serve as avatars for the soldiers and that are also the planet's natives. I've heard a little grumbling about the character design, but I reiterate that judgment should be reserved until the film, not snippets, are seen. My feeling on the 3D is what it always is: 3D injects an inital "ooo" factor and then dissipates.

What's the benefit of the studio doing a national campaign like Avatar Day rather than rolling out this footage at Comic-Con and then putting it online? Beats me. My guess is that anyone who attended these screenings was already committed to seeing the film on December 18. Sure, it snags some preview coverage--I wouldn't be writing about AVATAR otherwise--but is it worth the expense of renting all those IMAX 3D auditoriums nationwide to help get the word out to those who are unaware of the film? Apparently someone thinks so.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Hurt Locker

THE HURT LOCKER (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)

With little more than a month remaining on their 2004 tour of duty in Baghdad, Bravo Company's Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are hoping to get out of Iraq alive and in one piece. In THE HURT LOCKER a routine but dangerous mission results in a fellow soldier's death. Naturally, the accident unsettles the surviving men in the company, the jittery Eldridge in particular. Bravo Company disarms improvised explosive devices littering the war-torn streets, so very little margin of error exists for avoiding tragic consequences.

The introduction of Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) to their ranks does nothing to alleviate Sanborn and Eldridge's uneasiness. James possesses a phenomenal talent for disabling IEDs and staying cool under pressure, but he's also prone to risk-taking that endangers himself and all other military personnel in the vicinity. For James such disregard for protocol is necessary to achieve the adrenaline rush that attracts him to the work and makes him so successful. It certainly helps that he's wired a little differently than other soldiers, but his methods also ratchet up the tension in already stress-filled situations.

Screenwriter Mark Boal based THE HURT LOCKER on his experiences as an embedded journalist with a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. The script's authenticity and director Kathryn Bigelow's cinema verité style pull us into the film with a mixture of awe and terror. The film plunks us among these men performing incredibly hazardous work day in and day out and leaves us with frazzled nerves and appreciation for their service. Viewed purely as an action film, THE HURT LOCKER delivers again and again with tense scenes of IED disarmament and the potential for combat at any moment. The repetition can have a numbing effect, which admittedly works toward the film's purpose of addressing war's addictive nature, but it also causes THE HURT LOCKER to lose some steam toward the end.

Bigelow's naturalistic direction is critical to maintaining realism and intensity in the action sequences. The camera is often used as if the photographer is alongside the soldiers. When Bravo Company engages in a firefight with insurgents in the wilderness, the camera hunkers down with the men and keeps to a range as far as their equipment permits them to see. This may sound like an inconsequential or restrictive creative choice, but in this instance pinning the camera to a single spot in the rocky terrain is paramount for conveying screen geography and fostering suspense.

THE HURT LOCKER avoids explicit political statements about whether the United States military's presence in the region is legitimate or unjustified. Implicitly positive or negative readings of the film's stance on the War in Iraq probably reflect the beliefs viewers carry into the theater than what's on screen. This isn't a coward's way out for the filmmakers but rather an acknowledgment of the soldiers' reality. THE HURT LOCKER goes to great pains to present the challenges confronting them and how they function. When staring at several bombs that need to be disarmed, philosophical debates about patriotism or warmongering aren't the most urgent things coming to mind.

Grade: B

Friday, July 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (Marc Webb, 2009)

In (500) DAYS OF SUMMER Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) just can't get over Summer, the greeting card company co-worker who captures and inevitably breaks his heart. Tom should have anticipated this outcome and not simply because their initial flirtation took place over shared love for the doomed romanticism of The Smiths. Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) told him upfront in no uncertain terms that she wasn't looking for a serious relationship and, in fact, doesn't believe in love.

For awhile their casual and affectionate coupledom is more than enough to satisfy Tom, but the increasing differences in what Tom and Summer get and expect from the relationship eventually put an unbearable strain on it. She calls it quits. He falls to pieces.

Tom's friends and little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz) try to help him cope, but he can't see beyond his hard-fixed belief that Summer is the one he is meant to love forever and ever. Tom holds out hope that a reconciliation may happen. Since the film doesn't introduce to the characters on the 500th day, perhaps he has reason to think things will work out.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER'S non-linear timeline skips among the highs and lows during the not quite seventeen months in which Tom meets, dates, and remains hung up on the woman he is determined is everything he could ever want and more. Never mind that she doesn't reciprocate his ardor with the same intensity or desire for long-term commitment. The movies, pop music, and even the sentimental cards he writes for a living all reinforce the idea of a single soulmate and eternal happiness. Tom knows he's found this person in Summer, so why doesn't she feel similarly?

The answer, of course, is that life and love are rarely as tidy as art's simplified representations and the romantic's self-deluded perceptions. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER takes a hammer to romantic comedy tropes that distort the interpersonal dynamics between men and women into childish knight-in-shining-armor and princess fantasies. Of particular note is when the film shatters illusions with an amusing and heartbreaking scene that plays out in split-screen. One side is labeled "expectations", and the other is dubbed "reality". For Tom the gulf between the two sides of the frame is wide. He's fated to be miserable until he can accept that what he hoped for and what happened don't align.

While (500) DAYS OF SUMMER doesn't deal in the common yet unrealistic movie portrayals of falling in love, that hardly means it's a bitter or unpleasant film. It's romantic, funny and, yes, sad because director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber strive for emotional realism that audience members can relate to better than the exaggerated nonsense that passes for many film love affairs.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER can bring out that jubilant feeling, such as when Tom celebrates a relationship breakthrough by strutting down the street in a musical number scored by a bouncy Hall & Oates hit. The scene is over the top yet retains the ring of truth. Likewise, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER expresses the humor and pain of romantic contradictions. Tom's adoration of Summer's quirks turns into annoyance after they've broken up. His impression of her has changed, not Summer's specific qualities. These kinds of small details regarding how people think and behave is what makes the film more keenly felt than offerings in which both halves of a pair detest one another for ninety minutes and then awaken to their mutual but previously inevident passion in the final reel.

The advantage (500) DAYS OF SUMMER has over other romantic comedies isn't any radical innovation, yet it eludes a fair number of these films. Simply put, here the characters communicate. The enjoyment and heartache come from seeing Tom and Summer experience ups and downs together. Keeping them apart in any manner of contrived scenarios would be the typical gambit. When the characters do separate, it's not due to any villainous conduct on either part but a genuine disagreement on what the relationship should be.

As the commitment-seeking emotional mess and the nonchalant pragmatist, Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are a delight to watch as they reverse gender stereotypes. Gordon-Levitt displays a great deal of charm by investing Tom with the enthusiasm and wounded nature of a puppy dog. Deschanel plays the familiar part of mildly eccentric dream girl, but she inhabits the role with an introvert's grounding and secrecy. Tom may view Summer as an angel of salvation, but Deschanel plays her like the flesh-and-blood mortal she is.

Stylistically Webb indulges a taste for French New Wave playfulness, some of which almost nudges the film into overly cute territory. Another unmistakable influence is ANNIE HALL. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER doesn't reach the rarefied level of Woody Allen's masterpiece, but the film's bruised yet clear-eyed romanticism is refreshing to find in a genre that often settles for something less than truthful or passionate.

Grade: B+

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Ugly Truth

THE UGLY TRUTH (Robert Luketic, 2009)

Is there nothing grander than young love born from loathing and hatred? So says THE UGLY TRUTH.

Television morning show producer Abby (Katherine Heigl) would like to meet and marry Mr. Right, but she's not in any hurry to encounter who she envisions as the ideal man. It's a good thing Abby can wait. No one is likely to match the extensive and impractical checklist of criteria she's decided her companion must match.

Cable access show host Mike (Gerard Butler) dispenses relationship advice that, at best, could be considered sexist and more likely is misogynist. Mike's crude musings about men and women infuriates Abby when she stumbles upon his program one evening. The following morning she's even less pleased to learn that this oaf has been hired to goose the ratings for her show.

Mike and Abby get along grudgingly for the sake of work. To persuade her that his philosophies about interactions between the genders have merit, Mike offers some CYRANO DE BERGERAC-like help so Abby ensnare the hot podiatrist next door. She consents to carrying out his seduction techniques despite being unconvinced about his methods.

Romantic comedies have a tradition of exaggerating how people act and respond when it comes to matters of the heart, but even by those loose standards THE UGLY TRUTH far exceeds the limits of believable behavior. The film's comedic centerpiece is a scene in which Abby is humiliated during an important business dinner. It's the perfect encapsulation of everything wrong with THE UGLY TRUTH. The individual developments test the screenwriting credibility enough as it is. The chain of events is wholly implausible.

First, Abby and Mike have a graphic discussion at work about her sexual frustration. Next, Mike sends her vibrating panties to relieve the tension. Abby's date informs her that he's running late, so she slips on the stimulating underwear to bide the time. Practically as she's putting them on, Mike and her boss are at her door insisting that she must accompany them to a critical meeting. Perhaps mistakenly she slides the panties' remote into her purse and departs with her co-workers. At the restaurant the control falls out of her purse and is picked up by a boy. Since the remote looks like a gadget developed by a scientist in a 1950s movie, the boy begins playing with the device. The vibrating panties start working their magic. Rather than excusing herself, Abby moans and twitches in ecstasy in front of the entire restaurant. Mike even notices that the boy has the remote, but instead of putting an end to the situation, he is amused by it all and lets it continue.

While a similar scene takes place in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, there are crucial differences between the films. It's debatable whether either scenario might occur in public in real life, but unlike Meg Ryan's Sally, Abby in THE UGLY TRUTH has no control of the situation and is the one being embarrassed. In WHEN HARRY MET SALLY the humor derives from the male character's belief being challenged and him being made uncomfortable. Abby's degradation in THE UGLY TRUTH has a measure of vindictiveness and elicits cruel laughter. THE UGLY TRUTH has a pretty hateful attitude toward women, something forcefully emphasized in this scene

THE UGLY TRUTH'S gender politics draw inspiration from THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, but that doesn't absolve the coarse and nasty tone throughout a film that's supposedly a love story. Two-thirds of THE UGLY TRUTH concentrates on knocking Abby down peg after peg and provides no basis for attraction between her and Mike before delivering the predictable and dubious third act change of heart. THE UGLY TRUTH has all the honesty and romance of an Axe body spray commercial.

Grade: D+